Yes, but there are hard ways and easy ways for an army to stand up new capabilities.
The question of coastal artillery was all over the trade press last week, starting with a speech by Defense Secretary Hagel at the AUSA meeting. Hagel noted that for a century after 1812, the US Army protected American ports with a long series of fortresses with heavy guns. The service could again today “broaden its role by leveraging its current suite of long-range precision-guided missiles, rockets, artillery and air defense systems.” Congressman Randy Forbes agreed, sending a letter on the subject to Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno. Commander Salamander disagreed, but unconvincingly, with a diatribe about fixed fortifications. For as James Holmes observed for The Diplomat, neither Forbes nor Hagel are looking to protect Hampton Roads.
The first problem is the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which forbids the United States from possessing land-based missiles which can fly further than 500 kilometers, whether nuclear or not. While the Russian Federation may already be in violation, the United States has not yet decided to abandon the deal. All the same, if the aims are modest, the INF Treaty should not be problem, for geography is on the allied side. As RAND observed in its recent study on Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific, “ground-launched [anti-ship missiles] located in Taiwan with a range of no more than 100 kilometers, along with missiles with an effective range of 200 kilometers in Okinawa [Prefecture], could effectively cover all naval traffic south of Okinawa.” As long as the coastal artillery is only intended to shoot at targets the wet side of the Chinese coast, all will be well with obligations to the Russians. Besides, with the Chinese as with Russians, missiles that can’t actually strike the homeland will be less provocative, and hardly destabilizing.
The second problem is money, for anti-ship missiles are expensive. As General Gordon Sullivan reminds us, in that drawdown after the Cold War, the Army was getting out of two big segments of weaponry: chemical and nuclear. That was freeing up money to meet budgetary targets. Building up coastal artillery batteries and sending them to the Western Pacific would cost money, and today, new money is tight. But similarly, if aims are reasonable, the sums might be too. For conveniently, there are missiles on the shelf and in production that go 200 kilometers. Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile (NSM) can put a 125-kilogram warhead into a ship from at least 185 km (RAND thinks further). Saab’s RBS-15 Mark III can do the same with a 200-kg warhead from at least 200 km. Either is enough to badly damage a destroyer with a single hit. Two or three would ruin such a ship. The alternative is to launch a development program like a ground-based version of Lockheed’s in-process LRASM or Raytheon’s forthcoming improved Tomahawk—and wait.
The third problem is people: where is the Army supposed to find trained troops? Today, the Army is trying to hold onto force structure, while anticoindinista sentiment suggests that it has an excess of regulars. Does the pivot to the Pacific provide a political excuse for pivoting force structure? Awkwardly, the only US service with experience operating ground-based cruise missiles is the Air Force, and that experience ended over thirty years ago with the INF Treaty and the end of the Cold War. But plenty of military forces overseas have practical (if not quite combat) experience with antiship missiles. In the past few years, the Polish Navy has stood up a coastal defense division with NSMs from Norway. The Poles would almost certainly be delighted to help; they’d even build bases to train Americans (as long as they were reasonably close to the eastern border).
That is, there are hard ways and easy ways to stand up new capabilities. The hard way is to reach reflexively for further-faster weapons, in developmental programs, and to reinvent the wheel of operating concepts. The easy way to work within treaty limits, with what’s on the shelf, and ask allies to return that foreign assistance favor. It’s not the American military style, but it works.
James Hasík is a non-resident senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.